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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Fat Possum
Steve Earle
Washington Square Serenade
New West

Rating: 6.4/10 ?

October 2, 2007
Sometimes stability helps an artist gone missing to find themselves again. However that's never been the case with Steve Earle, and his new album, Washington Square Serenade, proves the point. Following 2004's politically-themed and at times forced album The Revolution Starts... Now, Earle married country singer-songwriter Allison Moorer in 2005. Earle might have "settled down," but his nuptials didn't serve to shake up his music. His most recent effort sounds most like his late-nineties work (see I Feel Alright and El Corazon); strong tunes wasting their horsepower by plowing the same, over-harvested earth as before. The twist marking Washington Square Serenade is the album's occasional use of electronic percussion, which is sometimes barely noticeable while at other moments is intrusive and distracting.

"Oxycontin Blues" plays like a vintage Earle tune, albeit with a modern spin. The frailing banjo backbone adds a hypnotic feel to the minor-key old-timey arrangement. "My cousin came up from Knoxville/ and taught me a thing or two/ Now I'm headed nowhere but downhill/ with the oxycontin blues." The track's marching drumbeat compliments Earle's raspy drawl seamlessly, giving the tune the signature Earle bite.

"Sparkle And Shine" is a more traditional fingerpicked solo country number, although to Earle's credit the precise fretwork never intrudes on the speakeasy lyrics. Earle's vocals blend nicely with the soft arrangement and the lyrics sound like a poetic ode to rural life; "My baby sparkle and shine/ sparkle and shine/ I can't believe she's mine." There are foundations for making "Sparkle And Shine" a much stronger number, but without a bridge the tune loses its momentum by the end.

Put alongside these more traditional highlights, which form the core of Washington Square Serenade and make it distinctly Earle's, the album's experiments often sound a bit flat. John King, one-half of the legendary production duo the Dust Brothers, might have found himself in unfamiliar territory working behind the knobs on Washington Square Serenade, but he left his mark on it just the same. The opening track, "Tennessee Blues," sees King's influence immediately, a scratchy drum loop pushing the song toward a cycle. "Satellite Radio" takes that idea and runs with it, employing a louder drum loop and a verse that sounds a bit like rap. Earle sings, "Is there anybody out there/ one, two, three/ on the satellite radio/ Big Daddy on the air/ are you listening to me?/ on the satellite radio?" It's a song that feels as redundant as the lyrics and sounds tiresome by the end of the first minute (at which point there's three more to go).

Earle's rootsy side finally comes out on "Steve's Hammer (for Pete)," a track that is certainly not Earle's catchiest tune but is nonetheless a much-needed organic rocker. The song has an energy that the looped tracks often lack, thanks in large part to the straight-ahead percussive feel and a sing-along chorus that propels the tune.

All things considered, Washington Square Serenade is a bit nonchalant by Earle's standards. Even with John King's production, no workable new revelations spring from the tunes. Though well known for his sampling work with the Beastie Boys (Paul's Boutique) and Beck (Odelay), the Dust Brother's groove doesn't seem to have clicked with Earle, a fact which might be owed to Earle's traditionally organic background and the fact that what experimentation is found on the album feels forced. Any further push into new-fangled territory would either yield a masterpiece or a complete failure, and forging ahead was perhaps not worth the gamble. Steve Earle has never been afraid to change directions, although none of his re-charted courses have ever landed him in the realm of sampling. While you can't fault a guy for trying something new, at the same time you've got to frown on someone phoning it in. The loops of Washington Square Serenade don't yield anything close to a revisiting of the brilliance found on The Mountain (1999) and Transcendental Blues (2001), so for now Steve Earle fans will just have to wait.

Reviewed by Jeff McMahon
No biographical information is currently available.

See other reviews by Jeff McMahon



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